To Include Me Is to Acknowledge Me

photo credit: Omaree A. Johnson

I was working at a large tech corporation during the Charlottesville protests in 2017. I remember waking up that Saturday morning and turning on the news, something that I never do. I tuned in just in time to watch a Black man run into a parking complex to escape from three white ‘protesters.’ They cornered him and beat him until he could no longer move. The camera cut pretty quickly back to the main event, and I never saw that news clip ever again.

For me, the burying of that news clip was the hardest part to swallow. When I recounted the actions I’d witnessed again and again to various friends over the weekend, I realized that only me and one other person had witnessed the brutality. I saw just how easily an important story can be manipulated to further a media agenda, perhaps under the guise of protecting the public. I went to work that Monday exhausted and dejected.

The exhaustion really came from the cognitive dissonance I needed to embrace while working at a large tech firm and living a Black life in America — that I’m a cog in a machine that rapes Africans for tantalum so that I can put organic food in my cats’ bowls and enjoy my South Lake Union lifestyle. Even though I lived with this dissonance, it was the interrupted conversations and awkward looks throughout that Monday that arguably hastened the approaching end of my career there. Rather than acknowledging the awkwardness of my Black presence in the wake of a White supremacy rally, my colleagues’ microexpressions and body language showed me just how much of an outsider I was to their comfortably White corporate culture.

Even with the myriad trainings aimed at creating a more inclusive culture, the sheer lack of any kind of acknowledgment, positive or negative, made me feel even more invisible than I ever had in my four-year tenure at the company.

I’m seeing and experiencing many parallels today. When I walk outside, whenever I encounter someone of a different race, I’m stared at a bit awkwardly before the other person just averts her eyes. Or if it’s a group of people talking, the hurriedly hushed conversation is reminiscent of my time at that larger corporation in 2017. Of course, with half their faces covered, it’s harder for me to understand the emotion behind the challenged encounters. Is it fear? Is it embarrassment? Is it just not knowing what to say? Is it an attempt to be sensitive to my needs?

I’m not entirely sure how to feel about these encounters with strangers. But, I try to wrap my mind around what it must be like to be in their shoes when encountering a Black woman with a Nefertiti-fro after the racial underbelly of America has been exposed for the world to see. A bit guilty, maybe. Or maybe they want to just give me a hug.

At the tech company, I strongly suspect that a few things were going on. My colleagues didn’t want to single me out. They were afraid they’d say something that might get them sent to HR. They didn’t know how appropriate it would be to acknowledge the situation in my presence. When I analyze each of those potential sentiments, I still find issues.

My colleagues never had an issue singling me out as the Black spokesperson in any other instance. They never had any issues saying anything else that did get them sent to HR on many occasions. And they were obviously talking about Charlottesville without me being present. So what gives?

The real issue is that racially divisive events force White people to acknowledge that there are two very different Americas, and that the American dream is a White one. It catapults White people into a state of cognitive dissonance that they’re uncomfortable with. It’s a state that most minorities have been forced to find normalcy in daily. It’s demonstrative of the fact that those White people never considered our histories to be a shared one. But now, much to their dismay, my Black America is leaking into their White one.

At this company, I was once asked by a General Manager if the company should require associates to wear Gay Pride shirts for the month of June. He wanted my perspective as a Black person. When I brought up the point that we didn’t do anything in kind for Black History month, his response was that we had a tremendous MLK Day celebration. There were SO many things wrong with this statement that I took the weekend to respond via email.

One thing that I realized was that he didn’t see MLK as his hero. To him, MLK was a Black hero for Black people. He didn’t feel a sense of pride in celebrating MLK’s greatness. Instead, his pride came from allowing us to celebrate a Black hero under his tenure as a White leader at a big tech firm. In my email, I emphasized that MLK is an international icon whose philosophies served as an foundation for many other disenfranchised cultures and whose actions rippled around the world for decades. I explained to him that as an American, we should be proud of what MLK did. After all, without MLK, he wouldn’t have me at his company whose opinion he can seek to help him become a better leader. Not to mention the fact that MLK day isn’t even in February, but I digress.

This encounter sticks with me because it was the first time I realized that someone that educated and that liberal actually saw our histories as separate. He had no issue singling me out. He wasn’t worried about what HR would say. This was just a fact of life for him. But when Charlottesville happened, and we passed each other multiple times in the open workspace, his leadership training failed him and his discomfort with The Other America was exposed.

I now work for a much smaller company, and after the recent racially charged events of Amy Cooper, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and the ensuing protests and riots, I again embraced the cognitive dissonance inherent in my life and went back to work, at home, on the following Monday. I braced myself for the same experience at my previous company.

Much to my surprise, about a dozen colleagues, a quarter of the entire company, reached out individually to ask how I was doing. Not only was I surprised about the acknowledgment, but also by the amazing tact in which I was approached. I was simply asked, ‘How are you doing?’ Without starting a politically charged conversation, without belying their White Fragility, and without making me the spokesperson for the entire Black race, my colleagues simply acknowledged my existence as a human being whose race is at the center of a very wicked recurring wound in our country. I felt seen without feeling put on stage. I felt acknowledged without ulterior motives. But, most importantly, I felt included in my colleagues’ worldview.

For companies that are taking on the noble challenge of truly being diverse and inclusive, you must first acknowledge that we are different, with different cultures and different Americas, but with a shared tumultuous history. Instead of only springing to action after a tragedy or attempting to ‘handle’ the entire race as a single unit with a lemming-like unified perspective, start with the individual. If you, as a White person, feel impacted by the racism you see, then, yes, it is fair to assume that your fellow Black colleague is as well.

Reaching out is just one of the many first steps you can take to acknowledge our separate histories.

It’s ok to ask your Black colleague if they’re doing ok. You are allowed to have a perspective and should seek out a Black perspective (not the Black perspective) from a co-worker. You should yank off the binds of HR-imposed politically correctness that create inertia and silence. It’s the blanket of silence that has kept racism lidded and neatly tucked away but seething and growing beneath. The only way to really remove this small-pox blanket is to create a dialogue and acknowledge that the human in you sees and acknowledges the human in me.

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Philosopher, activist, artist.

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Cresta E. Cavanaugh

Cresta E. Cavanaugh

Philosopher, activist, artist.

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